When you hear the words "fun run" what do you think? 99.9% of you probably think of that group run after your local 5k. Am I right? Well ultrarunners tend to take things too far... literally. A perfect example of this is Adam Hill (Mad A). Adam's idea of a "fun run" is a 67 mile, single track adventure with 30,000ft of elevation change. To make things a little more interesting... it's basically self supported (with the exception of gallons of water laid out every 3-8 miles) and starts at midnight. Sounds fun right? Absolutely. Hands down... the best adventure I have ever experienced to date.
The cool thing about the Pitchell fun run is just that... it's a fun run. It's not a race. It's not advertised. It's more or less, invite only. I've never even heard of Pitchell until it was mentioned in passing during a Pinhoti adventure run in September. And honestly... Pitchell is more of an experience than anything. I will never be able to explain it to where you understand it... it is one of those things you have to experience first hand to grasp.
Being that it basically follows the Mountains to Sea trail up in Asheville, NC (our favorite city), we decided to use this opportunity to take a short vacation for my birthday weekend. The plan was to head up on Thursday night with our good friend Katty, roam around downtown Friday, and then have the ladies crew me on Saturday. Due to some changes in the Andrews' household, we didn't really have the money to be throwing around for a getaway. So after some logistic planning and pretty much vowing not to sleep all weekend, I decided to venture out solo. I planned on staying in Atlanta on Thursday night and carpooling over on Friday with hopes of coming back to Atlanta and crashing sometime late Saturday/early Sunday morning.
I arrived in Atlanta just in time to have a few beers and tacos with Brandi (female winner of The North Face 50 Mile Endo Challenge in ATL), Erin (2nd overall female at the StumpJump 50k), and several new faces from the local Thursday night running club. We chatted about upcoming events and then called it a night.
I tried sleeping in... and of course sleeping in was 6:30am. After a quick stop by REI for a map of the Mt. Mitchell area and a new pair of clearance Patagonia shorts (score!), we set off for NC. The drive took roughly 3hrs(ish) and somehow or another, Rabun Bald was brought up. They say it's good to stop every couple of hours and stretch your legs right? I honestly don't think "they" meant... stop at the bottom of a mountain and climb 1.5miles to the top... but hey... it's open for interpretation. Probably not the best decision to be hiking a strenuous 3 mile out and back before running all night, but you only live once... and like I said... I've never seen Rabun Bald.
Sitting in MacDonald's, calculating up the most massive caloric intake possible, we took a look at the weather for Saturday. The weather looked like it was going to be perfect with it being in the upper 30s on the summit of Mt Mitchell Saturday night. We walked over to Big Lots to grab some gloves. Of course... the only gloves they had were purple... with a mustache on the finger. $2 for Puppa Staches... heck of a deal.
We knocked on Adams door and he immediately invited us into Chateau de Hill and introduced us to his wife and 3 kids. Adam by far is one of the most genuine, down to earth people I have EVER met. I was completely blown away by his hospitality. We were early, so there weren't any runners there yet. After hide and seek and some indoor soccer with the youngsters, people started arriving. People from all over came to run Pitchell. Leadville, Indiana, Alabama, Georgia, NC. The group from Leadville came bearing gifts. They brought a wooden carving (scaled down of course.. haha) of the Pitchell course. It was amazing!
8:20pm - Matt and Lily brought pizza.
9:15pm - Adam serenaded the group with a private performance on the guitar in his living room.
9:45pm: Everyone loaded up and headed to the FAC (Folk Arts Center).
Pulling into the FAC, there was a small group already in the parking lot. The FAC was the halfway point. It was where everyone parked their cars with supplies for the second half of the run. We all gathered around for a quick briefing. Adam passed out some emergency contact information... which was basically a list of numbers you could call/text and someone (if awake) would come and pick you up if you needed to bail earlier than the FAC. After the briefing we all piled into cars that were designated to shuttle us to Mt. Pisgah. (HUGE HUGE HUGE thank you to all the volunteers that shuttled runners up to Pisgah!!). After a winding drive down the Blue Ridge Parkway, we made it to the Mt. Pisgah parking lot. Of course the race starts on the summit, so with headlamps shining, we stomped 1.5 miles up to the summit.
12am - Adam says a few words... and it begins.
There's really not much to report for the first few hours. It was a lot of technical, descending single track, where you passed by some creepy tunnels with graffiti. At one point we found ourselves wandering aimlessly on top of a mountain in fog thick enough where you could hardly see your hand in front of you, just praying for white blaze. After thoughts of being brutally murdered by the crazed psychopath killer that we thought was stalking us... we found a white blaze and descended out of the fog.
Sleepy Gap... the sign sayeth "Sleepth not at Sleepy Gap"...(we won't go into detail why you shouldn't sleep at Sleepy Gap... but I'm sure you're smart enough to figure it out). Do you know what it's like to be completely sleep deprived in the foggy NC mountains... and stumble upon a white horse head? Gives you a little bit of a heart attack. But of course... what else do you do at 3am, but ride the stick horse? Crazy? Damn right.
I can't recall exactly when Erin rolled her ankle... I believe it was sometime between Sleepy Gap (mile 14) and the French Broad River (mile 20). It was bound to happen to one of us throughout the night. I slipped and rolled ankles throughout the night, but hers was bad. We continued over the French Broad River bridge and headed back into the dark forest. Again, things get fuzzy because it's not a race where aid station volunteers can give you updates and to be honest... I've only ran about 4 miles of the trails out there, so it was all new to me. We continued through the night.
A hint of light does wonders to your spirit. After being in the dark for the past 7hrs or so, the sun was finally coming up. We were closing in on the FAC. A mile or so before the FAC, we crossed over some train tracks and then hopped a fence and continued through a cow pasture that ran under the Parkway.
We came into the FAC around 8-830ish? Not really 100% on that one either. After going through some scenarios the last few miles leading up to the FAC, Erin decided to drop. Her ankle was giving her trouble and was making her overcompensate with other areas and her form wasn't where it should be. If she kept it up for another 33 miles, she would have injured herself further. It was the right decision. Like I said... it's no race. You can't just roll into another an aid station and drop. That is just not an option in Pitchell and honestly, if you wanted to bail after the FAC... it almost means hitchhiking back. So Erin decided to crew me for the rest of the run. I changed socks, devoured a 6in Philly Cheesesteak, and headed back for round 2.
Pitchell gets harder as you go. You start on top of Mt. Pisgah and drop into the valley. Well, if you are going up to Mt. Mitchell... you must go up. Sooooo muuuuuuch climbing on the second half. Quickly after leaving the FAC I started to climb. I quickly settled into a rhythm and the next thing I knew, I was at Craven's Gap (mile 40). Coming up on Craven's Gap I saw Erin's car on the side of the road. As I came closer, I saw her sprawled out in the front seat zonked out. You have to remember, we've been up since 6:30am on Friday... it was now Saturday morning and well over 24hrs. I honestly didn't need anything major from the car, so I let her sleep and just sent a quick text and told her I'd passed through and would meet her at Bee Tree Gap. I crossed the road and started back on the trail. At this point, I hadn't really seen anyone from the group in quite some time. After a mile or so I came up on a runner I recognized from our original starting group. She was jamming out with her ear buds in, so it took a few minutes for me to get her attention. I finally caught her attention, we swapped a few words, and she let me pass.
Bull Gap (mile 43) was inhabited by a group of about 5 when I came through. I quickly filled my bottles up and carried on. I guess I should have looked at a course description or some elevation charts before setting off to run this event, but I was basically told... it's hard, has a ton of climbing, and not a lot of people finish. So really... what would be the point of knowing what you had coming up? You have to make the climbs regardless. It was the climb out of Bull Gap where I really started to notice the beauty of this place. It was Fall here. Beautiful, bright colors filled the trees... the weather was crisp... the smell of October filled the mountain air. It was perfect. Alabama (Roll Tide) had not yet experienced Fall this year. It was still green.
Bull Gap (mile 43) to Bee Tree Gap (mile 51) was an extremely hard section, but probably my favorite section of the run. I felt really strong so pushed it pretty hard during this 7 mile stretch. I basically climbed, dropped down a little, climbed some more... this continued for miles until I came upon the summit of whatever mountain I was climbing. The effort was worth it. The single track revealed a gorgeous overlook (the guy I passed at the top mentioned "Pinnacle" - so maybe it's something along those lines). I stood on the rock facing for a moment and smiled at the mountains in front of me.
Coming out of Bee Tree Gap I saw Erin's car again... zonked out. I asked how her ankle felt since she had it elevated while asleep. She said it was sore, but it would be fine. I filled my bottle with some electrolyte mix, took a few swigs of coke, and set off again. The next few miles were beautiful... which brought company. Groups of hikers were out enjoying the Reds, Oranges, and Yellows... the cool air... the overcast sky... this absolutely amazing place.
I came into the parking lot at Graybeard Overlook (mile 55) and saw Erin sleeping again. This was the one time where I was envious. I was hungry and sleepy. I refueled on the second half of my foot long Philly Cheesesteak and downed a good portion of the 2 liter Coke in the back of her car. I grabbed a few gels and stuffed them in my pack since it was only a 3 mile section before I'd be at the car again... or so I thought. My phone was dying when I got to Balsam Gap, so before my phone died completely, I shot a quick text to let Erin know that I'd just meet her at Hwy 128 (mile 63).
After realizing the climb out of Balsam Gap was going to be a long one... I took off my pack, grabbed my zip lock bag of Sour Patch Kids, and marched upwards. The best damn Sour Patch Kids ever!!!! I destroyed the entire zip lock bag before I reached the top. NomNomNom. Once at the top, I ran/hiked the ridge for a while. I felt completely alone. It was a very remote section of the trail. And it was here... where I saw a monkey. In my heart... I KNOW there are no monkeys in the Asheville wilderness... however... my mind made me take a detour off the trail and tap this "monkey" with my foot. Guess what it revealed? A stump. I am on top of a mountain... in the middle of no where... and I am taking a detour off the trail to prove to myself that I'm not seeing a freakin monkey. The last time I eat out dated Sour Patch Kids...
I finally ran across a hiker and we stopped and chatted for a few minutes.
Steve the Hiker: "Are you not cold?"
Me: "Nah, I've been out here a while and my pack is keeping my core pretty cozy."
Steve the Hiker: "Where you headed?"
Me: "Mt Mitchell."
Steve the Hiker: "Oh yea? Where you coming from?"
Me: "Mt Pisgah."
Steve the Hiker: "HAHAHAHA! Long day for ya ain't it son?"
Me: *laughing* "Yes sir... it most certainly has been!"
I couldn't help but laugh. It was ridiculous.
Before we parted ways, I asked how much longer till I hit Hwy 128. Steve the Hiker told me "Oh, just about a mile or so." Wrong. Steve the Hiker had betrayed me. My mind said, "1 mile. Downhill. 20mins tops." Lies. I ran down the mountain FOR-EV-ER. All I remember is going down and down... on technical, hard rocks... switchback... after switchback... after switchback. I just wanted to be at the bottom. I thought I kept hearing the road... it was the wind... just the wind... every single time. I threw myself a little pity party. God must have heard. I came out of the woods and stood on a rock, staring at the gorgeous Fall mountain colors in front of me. *smack* Slap in the face. "Stop feeling sorry for yourself and enjoy my beautiful mountains. It's not supposed to be easy." - God -
Ok ok.. I gotcha... geez ;)
As I approached Hwy 128... I came across a zip lock bag before I hit the road. Hours before... we were instructed to check off our name before starting up Mitchell. I dropped to both knees. I made it. I made it to the zip lock bag of destiny. I signed my name and walked across the road. It was getting cold so I put on my purple gloves and threw on a pullover and my BUFF. Erin handed me two half empty Red Bulls. I car pulled over and rolled down the window. The excited woman in the driver's seat asked if I was a Pitchell guy. "Yes mam." She congratulated me and drove off. It amazes me... all the excitement and support for outdoor adventure from the people of the city of Asheville... it's simply amazing.
This was it. Last 4ish miles up to the summit. I ran for the first two miles... it was gradual climbing and I felt good. I thought... "this isn't too bad... I thought the last climb would be the worst." I came across a gravel road and I followed that a few yards before hitting the woods again. Straight up. There we go! I knew it was bound to happen. The sun was setting quickly, it was getting cold and dark. I wanted to make the summit before nightfall, so I pushed it a little bit. There would be no running the last 2 miles... power hike all the way. The trail started to straighten out a bit and ahead of me was an opening. I saw a group bundled up in warm clothes, walking on concrete. When I left the woods... a huge gust of cold wind hit me. I was there. I walked up the pathway... circled to the observation deck... and with a huge smile on my face... I stepped on the highest point east of the Mississippi.
Pitchell complete. 18hrs48mins. No view from the summit... only cold 36degree gusts of cold wind and grey clouds... and it couldn't have been more perfect.
I walked down to the parking lot and was greeted with an excited hug from Erin. I turned around and found myself immediately wrapped in a huge bear hug with Adam. This guy had finished in an incredible 13hrs34mins and still waited all day on all the runners at the summit. Like I said... one incredible guy.
On the way back to Atlanta, we discussed the adventure. Somewhere in the conversation, Erin mentioned a low growling cat sound she had heard several times during the early morning hours... I cut my eyes over her way. I had heard it too, but didn't mention anything about it at the time because who wants to be thinking of a wild cat stalking you at 4am? Not no one that's who.
After a hot shower and a few cold beers... I laid down on the couch that I had woken up on 42hrs earlier...